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Positive Discipline and Behavior Management

By Jocelyn R. Miller, PhD, Dean Pediatric Psychologist

This article:

  • Helps parents understand the necessity of providing structure and discipline for children.
  • Gives parents the skills they need to discipline children fairly and effectively.


Parenting Philosophy

Parent consists of two major tasks - nurturance and structure.

Nurturance is the love and opportunities we give to our child to fuel his mental and emotional growth.

Structure is the routines, the rules, and the consequences we set for our child's behavior to guide her growth.

A balance of nurturance and structure are essential for a child to grow into a competent, loving, responsible adult.

Many behaviors are governed by their consequences. Rewards are positive events that increase the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. Punishments are negative events that decrease the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated.

Today's parents generally do a good job with nurturing their children. However, many parents don't understand the power of their parental authority, are often uncomfortable using that authority firmly to provide structure and discipline for their children.


Discipline Do's

  • Think ahead. Many negative behaviors can be prevented through supervision, monitoring and a child-friendly environment.
  • Catch them being good. Immediate praise is an excellent tool to encourage behaviors that the child is just learning, or rarely shows. "I like to see you sharing with your brother", or "You are doing such a nice job cleaning up" can go a long way.
  • Nip negative behaviors in the bud. When a child is being naughty, intervene early in the process while you are still in control of your emotions.
  • Remove distractions when giving directions. Turn off the television. Ask the child to step away from her toy or friend so she can listen.
  • Give instructions clearly. Make eye contact with your child, and speak in a firm voice.
  • Expect compliance with instructions. Administer a short punishment immediately, such as a time-out, if the child does not comply after one reminder.
  • Use short-term punishments. Enforce them immediately and consistently. Grounding a child for one or two days is often more effective than grounding them for a week.
  • Use time-out to interrupt unwanted behavior and help the child settle down. For an effective time-out, the child should sit in a boring place where he can not play or interact with the family. Time-out starts when the child is quiet, and lasts for approximately the number of minutes that the child is years old.

Effective rewards for children include:

  • Play time with a parent
  • A friend over to play, or a sleep over
  • An outing to a park or play land
  • Treats to eat
  • TV time, computer time, or video game time

 Effective punishments for children, in addition to time-out, include:

  • Restriction of privileges, such as no bike, no roller blades, no electronics, no friends over, grounding to their bedroom
  • Mandatory chores, such as writing sentences, or household chores that are not part of the child's expected routine.

Discipline Don'ts

  • Don't wait until you blow your top to set limits on your child's negative behavior. Punishments chosen in anger are more likely to be unreasonable or excessive.
  • Don't give out punishments you have no intention of enforcing. You and your child both know that getting grounded for a year is not going to happen.
  • Keep lectures to a minimum. All you need to do is be sure the child knows why they are being punished and what the terms of the punishment are. Avoid lengthy "should haves" and "you know betters."
  • Don't expect unwanted behaviors to go away after one punishment. Negative behaviors are often repeated, depending on the child's age and personality.
  • Don't be taken in the child's seeming indifference to a punishment. Even if she says, "I don't care", go ahead and take the bike away.
  • Don't forget the power if ignoring. Your attention is a powerful consequence that affects whether your child's behavior is going to increase or decrease.
  • Don't phrase instructions as a question. This gives the child the option to obey or not.
  • Don't give up on a punishment if it doesn't seem to work the first time. A punishment is still effective if it decreases the frequency of a negative behavior, even if that behavior is not eliminated.
  • Don't allow time off from a punishment for good behavior. If you are using shorter punishments as recommended, you will not be tempted to do this. A policy allowing the child to earn her way to a reduced punishment often simply teaches manipulation.

And most importantly, Don't be a role model of negative behaviors. If you don't want your 4-year old to swear, don't swear. If you don't want your teenager to smoke, don't smoke.

Jocelyn Miller, PhD is a child psychologist with over 20 years of professional experience. She has two children, two adult stepchildren, and three step grandchildren, which challenges her to practice what she preaches on a daily basis. Dr. Miller joined Dean Clinic in 1993. View Dr. Miller's profile.

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